Saturday, February 29, 2020

Reindeer Games

Premiered February 25, 2000.

This year's edition of "Oscar Takes A Holiday" concludes with our review of the Christmas-themed action movie Reindeer Games, which features two Academy Award Winners.

Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster (2003).

Ben Affleck has never won an Academy Award for acting.  However, he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for co-writing Good Will Hunting (1997) with Matt Damon.  Affleck later won the Best Picture Academy Award for co-producing Argo (2012) .

And now, here's our final Oscars-themed review of 2020!:

Car thief Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) and his cell mate Nick Cassidy (James Frain) are two days away from being released from prison.  Rudy is looking forward to hot chocolate, pecan pie and watching sports with his father.  

Nick has been corresponding with a woman named Ashley (Charlize Theron) and he plans to spend the upcoming Christmas season with her.  Unfortunately, Nick is killed in a prison riot just before his release date.

When Rudy is released, he sees Ashley waiting outside the prison and decides he will pretend to be Nick. They immediately fall for each other.  Rudy decides to wait until Christmas is over to tell her he isn't Nick.

Rudy's plans change when he's ambushed by several men.  The leader of the attack is Ashley's brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise), who is also known as "Monster."  Gabriel knows Nick worked as a security guard in a casino and thinks "Nick" will help him pull off a casino heist on Christmas Eve. Rudy attempts to tell Gabriel that he's not Nick and that he knows nothing about casinos.  However, Rudy changes his tune when a gun is pointed at his head.  He pretends to know about the casino's schematics and agrees to be part of the robbery.

Ashley confesses that she knew Gabriel would do this to Nick, but she expected Gabriel to wait until New Year's Eve.

Will Rudy go through with the robbery?  Will Gabriel discover that Rudy isn't Nick?   Will Rudy survive and make it to Christmas?

J.A. Morris says:
I really like the idea of a movie like Reindeer Games.  I have no problem with a "shoot-em-up" action/heist Christmas movie with a high body count.  There is room for every genre at Christmas time. The problem with Reindeer Games is that it's an idea that’s poorly executed and the story is a mess.  

Reindeer Games has lots of problems. One of the biggest problems is that Rudy's lie (about being Nick) leads to the death of an innocent ice fisherman when Rudy attempts to escape from Gabriel's gang.  Rudy later seems to forget about it.  That's just bad storytelling.  Reindeer Games also features multiple expositions where characters explain what there going to do while pointing guns in each other's faces and lots of double and triple-crosses.

It's too bad Reindeer Games wasn't better, because the talent in front of and behind the camera is amazing.  Director John Frankenheimer helmed a bunch of good movies, most notably Birdman Of Alcatraz, Seven Days In May and The Manchurian Candidate.  Sadly, Reindeer Games was Frankenheimer's last theatrical film.  

In spite of my general negative opinions about Reindeer Games, I don’t want to spoil the ending.  Let’s just say there’s a revelation late in the movie that’s a bit hard to believe even in the context of a big dumb action movie.  

In addition to the leads, the cast features a "Who's Who?" of great character actors: James Frain, Clarence Williams III, Danny Trejo and Donald Logue, Dennis Farina and Isaac Hayes. Unfortunately, these actors can't elevate the material they have to work with.

Reindeer Games features a great cast that is sadly wasted. It’s not recommended and I’m giving it our lowest rating.

J.A. Morris' rating:

A stocking full of coal.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Preacher's Wife

Premiered December 13, 1996.

The Preacher's Wife is a remake of The Bishop's Wife, which we reviewed yesterday.  Let's look at this movie's connection to the Academy Awards:

Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Glory (1990) and later won Best Actor for Training Day (2001).  

Denzel Washington wins his first Oscar on March 26, 1990.
The Preacher's Wife features music by Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his Best Original Score for The Lion King (1995).

It’s also worth noting that Zimmer's music for The Preacher’s Wife received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Music.  

Here's our review:

Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) is pastor of St. Matthew’s Church, which is located in a neighborhood that has fallen on hard times.  The church itself is also in a state of disrepair and dire financial straits.  

Local predatory real estate mogul Joe Hamilton (Gregory Hines) wants to buy the church so he can replace it with expensive condominiums.  The church’s boiler explodes a week before Christmas and a parishioner is jailed for a crime he didn’t commit.  Henry is being pulled in all directions while trying to save his church and the community. 

Since he’s busy and distracted all the time, Rev. Biggs’ wife Julia (Whitney Houston) feels like Henry has been taking her for granted.  Julia serves as St. Matthew’s choral director and is busy producing its annual Christmas pageant.  

Their son Jeremiah (Justin Pierre Edmund) is upset because his best friend has moved away to live with a foster family.  With so many problems to face, Henry prays to God for help.  

Help arrives in the form of an angel named Dudley (Denzel Washington).  He tells Rev. Biggs he’s the answer to his prayer and that’s he’ll help him manage the church.  

Henry is VERY skeptical when Dudley tells him he’s an angel.  Rev. Biggs comes around when Dudley demonstrates some supernatural abilities, like magically starting Henry’s stalled car.  

Julia is charmed by Dudley and the feeling is mutual.  They spend lots of time together since Henry is always busy, which creates more tension in their marriage.

Joe Hamilton continues to pressure Henry into selling his church to make way for condos.  He says he’ll build a new mega-church for Biggs in exchange for the old church.  Julia believes Joe wants to build the mega-church to be a monument to his own ego.  Hamilton sweetens the deal by promising to pay for a new boiler so that St. Matthew's will be warm during its Christmas services.  

Will Henry sell out to Hamilton?  Can Julia and Henry’s marriage be saved?  Can Dudley’s angelic powers save the day for everyone? 

J.A. Morris says:
This is a good “modern” remake of The Bishop’s Wife (I put “modern” in quotation marks because this movie is now 23 years in the past!).  The stakes are upped a little bit from the original.  In this version, Henry Biggs could lose his church to a wrecking ball, whereas Henry Brougham’s problem was funding construction for his new cathedral (his old church was never in danger).  

While I like both versions, The Preacher’s Wife gives Julia Biggs a little more agency than Julia Brougham.  Whitney Houston’s Julia argues rather forcefully with her husband, something Loretta Young’s character didn’t get to do.  

I mentioned in yesterday’s review that David Niven’s performance as Bishop Brougham was my favorite part of The Bishop’s Wife.  I feel the same way about Courtney B. Vance in the remake.  

While Vance has had a great career, he was not intended to be the “main attraction” in a film that featured Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.  Vance has to do the heavy lifting here, and (like Niven) he makes Rev. Biggs’ growth and change feel real.  There’s a great scene where, after a long day of work and difficulties at home,  Henry’s car won’t start on a cold December night.  Vance does a great job conveying Henry’s sense of “what now” despair.  

Like Cary Grant before him, Denzel Washington brings a lot of his usual charm and charisma to Dudley.  

Whitney Houston wasn’t a classically trained actor like Vance and Washington, but she holds her own in every scene with them.  

The supporting cast is also strong.  Jenifer Lewis gets some of the funniest lines as Julia’s mother Margueritte.  Loretta Divine is solid aas Henry’s secretary Beverly.  

Gregory Hines is great as the sleazy Joe Hamilton.  Margueritte says that Hamilton is “so oily you could fry chicken” on his smile and Hines makes you believe her!

If there’s anything wrong with The Preacher’s Wife, it’s that I felt it had a few too many musical performances by Whitney Houston.  While I wasn’t a fan of all of her music, she had an amazing voice.  I’m guessing that her singing (and the soundtrack album that accompanied this movie) was a major factor in this film being greenlit.  On a positive note about Houston's songs, I enjoyed the uptempo gospel arrangement of “Joy To The World."

The only other problem I had was that Jenifer Lewis played Whitney Houston’s mother.  While I enjoyed Lewis’ performance in The Preacher’s Wife, she was born only six years before Houston.  This didn’t ruin the movie, but it strained credulity a bit.

The Preacher’s Wife is a good updated remake of a classic Christmas movie and is recommended.  If you’re a huge Whitney Houston fan, you may like it more than I did.

J.A. Morris’ rating:

3 candy canes.  

RigbyMel says: 

I’d never gotten around to watching this version of this story until I started blogging about holiday movies and it was very interesting watching The Preacher’s Wife in proximity to The Bishop’s Wife for this review.    There were differences in emphasis evident from the change in time period to the focus on people of color.  

Some of these differences worked well  -- there were higher stakes in terms of Henry’s church being in disrepair and the subplot involving the teenaged parishioner in danger of being sent to jail for something he didn’t do.   

I also liked the subplot involving the small children -- Jeremiah, who is Henry & Julia’s son in this version, is dealing with his best friend Hakim moving away due to needing foster care.   The resolution here was perhaps a bit obvious,  but it’s a Christmas movie, and it’s sweet so I can’t really complain. 

The choice to make the Hamilton character a predatory real estate developer who holds out the prospect of a shiny new church in a gated community as a temptation to Henry was also a choice that resonated in terms of a more modern sensibility.   Gregory Hines was appropriately unctuous as the developer and I thought it was fascinating that Dudley chose to go for a much more direct A Christmas Carol-style spirit intervention in this version than did the Dudley in the 1940s iteration.  (Which ALSO has the Christmas Carol aspect evident, not quite as blatant.)   

Both the 1940s and 1990s films make music an important aspect of the story development, but due to the inclusion of Whitney Houston, it’s rather more prominent in the later version.   The gospel rendition of “Joy To The World” is truly joyous and is my favorite musical number from The Preacher’s Wife

However, some other choices like the decision to use the (admittedly adorable) Jeremiah as the narrator for the proceedings, do not work quite as well as I think the director and/or screenwriter would have hoped.   The narration comes off as ever so slightly cloying at times and feels unnecessary.  

That being said, this remake is an enjoyable take on the classic and worth a look should you have the time or inclination!

RigbyMel’s rating: 

3 candy canes

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Bishop's Wife

Premiered December 9, 1947 in New York City, February 16, 1948 nationwide.

"Oscar Takes A Holiday" continues with a film that features contributions from multiple Academy Award-winners.

Loretta Young plays the titular "bishop's wife."  She won the Best Actress Oscar for the 1947 movie The Farmer's Daughter.

David Niven, won his Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables in 1958.

The Bishop's Wife was produced by Samuel Goldwyn.  He won the Best Picture Oscar for producing The Best Years Of Our Lives in 1946.  At the same Oscars ceremony, Goldwyn won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award which is presented to "creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."  In the photo below, Goldwyn is holding both the Thalberg award and his Oscar.

Robert E. Sherwood co-wrote The Bishop's Wife and won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the aforementioned The Best Years Of Our Lives.

Last, but definitely not least, The Bishop's Wife is an Academy Award-winning film.  It won an Oscar for Best Sound Recording, with the statuette going to the film's sound director Gordan Sawyer.  He won two other Academy Awards for sound recordings for his work on The Alamo and West Side Story.  Sawyer also has an honorary Oscar named for him that is given to people in the motion picture industry "whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.”

Gordon Sawyer, holding the Oscar he won for West Side Story.

While we normally discuss Academy Award Winners, not nominees during "Oscar Takes A Holiday," it's worth noting that The Bishop's Wife was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing.  

It might come as a surprise to some, but while Cary Grant was one of the biggest movie stars of all time, he never won an Oscar.  He was only nominated twice for Best Actor.

Now that we've discussed this film's strong Oscars pedigree, here's our review:

As Christmas approaches, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is having trouble raising money to pay for a new cathedral and prays for guidance.  

His prayers are answered by a charming and handsome angel named Dudley (Cary Grant).

The bishop's fundraising efforts have also created tension between Henry and his wife, Julia (Loretta Young).  She feels like Henry has little time for her and fears he may be overtaxing himself with the cathedral plans.

Dudley's good deeds manage to enchant most everybody in town -- a curmudgeon-y professor (Monty Woolley), the bishop's secretary (Sara Haden) and maid (Elsa Lanchester), his daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes), a taxi driver (James Gleason), and a snobbish, materialistic potential donor (Gladys Cooper).  

However, the bishop himself begins to wonder if Dudley is really as angelic as he claims to be.  Henry suspects the angel is taking a romantic interest in his wife!

Will the cathedral get built?  Will the bishop and Julia's marital troubles be resolved?  Will Dudley manage to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all and earn his wings?

RigbyMel says: 

I first encountered The Bishop's Wife on cable during the holiday season when I was in high school.  I had been on a bit of a Cary Grant kick at the time and found the movie to be quite charming.   It became a regular part of my holiday viewing and has remained so.   

The story is sweet without being cloying and the cast is absolutely top-notch.

David Niven makes the bishop a sympathetic character who is so focused on getting the cathedral built that he's missing out on what's really important.   Niven's starchy British-ness and comedic chops are deployed to excellent effect -- for instance, take a look at the scene where he becomes literally stuck to a chair at a snooty donor's residence!

Cary Grant is delightful as Dudley -- one can see why he would appeal to pretty much everyone he meets and I enjoy his low key "miracles" throughout the film -- particularly a bit involving a locked door.  There are also some great stop motion animated bits where Dudley gets to quickly sort thru some mail and even decorate a Christmas tree with a wave of his hand.

Interestingly, when the production for this film began, Niven and Grant's roles were reversed!  It's hard to imagine this reversal working quite as well had the director gone through with it.

Loretta Young is lovely in the important (but ever so slightly thankless) role of Julia.  She manages to imbue her just a bit too perfect character with heart. 

And the supporting actors are fun as well -- particularly Elsa Lanchester (whose best known role today is as the Bride of Frankenstein) in the role of the family's maid.

The Bishop's Wife's classic holiday movie bona fides are also very strong.

Monty Woolley - who also appears in The Man Who Came To Dinner - is amusing as the cynical Professor Wutheridge, who also is the recipient of some angelic help from Dudley. 

And two young actors that appear in the beloved 1946 classic It's A Wonderful Life  have small but important roles in the movie.   Keep an eye out in the snowball fight scene for Robert J. Anderson (who also played the young George Bailey in IAWL).  

Robert J. Anderson (right) plays the captain of the "defending" team in the snowball fight.

The bishop's young daughter Debby is played by Karolyn Grimes (who also plays George's daughter Zuzu in IAWL).

The Bishop's Wife is an underappreciated holiday classic and most definitely is worthy of adding to your regular Yuletide film rotation.

RigbyMel's rating:

4 candy canes!

J.A. Morris says:

Unlike my co-blogger, I hadn't seen The Bishop's Wife until she introduced it to me in the last decade.  It's a good Christmas movie that features excellent performances by some of Classic Hollywood's best actors.  

Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors and it's nice to have an excuse to watch him every December, he makes Dudley believable.  Loretta Young is also solid as Julia.  

However, David Niven has the toughest role of The Bishop's Wife and he delivers.  Henry isn't a bad person, he's just going through a rough patch and isn't sure how to go about financing the cathedral's construction while simultaneously trying to be a decent husband and father.  

I'm sure some moviegoers 1947 found themselves rooting for Julia and Dudley to fall in love, since on the surface, they're more likable than the bishop.  I won't spoil the ending, but let's just say when the movie ends on Christmas morning, Henry has grown and changed for the better.  Niven makes Henry's growth very plausible.  

Monty Woolley is also great as Julia and Henry's old friend Professor Wutheridge.  As RigbyMel mentioned, Woolley played the rude and bombastic Sheridan Woodside in another Christmas movie, The Man Who Came To DinnerThe Bishop's Wife gives holiday film fans a chance to see Woolley play a much nicer character.  

If I have any problems with The Bishop's Wife, it's that its pacing could've been a little better.  It's nearly two hours long and I think it could've told its story in a slightly shorter running time.  

The Bishop's Wife is an enjoyable Christmas movie and I recommended it to fans of Hollywood's Golden Age and everyone who loves Yuletide movies.  If you're not a fan of David Niven's acting, this film will make you one.  

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes!  

Coming up tomorrow:
We continue our Oscars tribute with a review of a remake of The Bishop's Wife!  See you then!